The Burning Coal Theatre Company production of David Edgar’s Pentecost Photo: Jason Dail
I decide it’s only fair to notify David Edgar that I am, in fact, Eastern European. We’re talking about what has been dubbed his Iron Curtain Trilogy – three plays about Eastern Europe’s transition from communism to capitalism – and I’m finding the accurate predictions they delivered a somewhat bitter pill to swallow. So I fess up and even tell him exactly where I’m from, though a split second later I realise it’s hardly relevant. The Shape of the Table, Pentecost, and The Prisoner’s Dilemma all consider resolutely unspecified ex-communist countries in the post Berlin Wall period. If you know your history you might recognise glimpses of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution or the bloodshed of Yugoslavia falling apart – but these plays are less concerned with being chronicles and more interested in observing the phenomena of Europe renegotiating itself.
Twenty-five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and twenty-five years since Edgar sat down to work on The Shape of the Table, Europe seems to have made a full circle. Former Eastern Block countries were embraced into the EU, only to be ritually marked as the black sheep of free movement; right-wing populists have sprung up across Europe; refugees and asylum seekers from the Third World are prodding at the borders of the old continent, while the UK decides that saving them from drowning will only entice benefit tourism. Edgar’s trilogy anticipated much of this and his political clairvoyance makes it difficult to talk theatre: instead we spend our time discussing where the tides he sensed during the 12 years the trilogy took to write led us to today.
The relationship between East and West is one of the central struggles in the plays, with Eastern Europeans constantly suspicious of the condescending attitudes of the West and Western Europeans rather enjoying their paternal role. Pentecost and The Prisoner’s Dilemma are rife with the First World attempting to teach the Second World how to go on about life, not quite realising that the east is already leaking into the west: “1989 was the kind of high point – even before the wall came down – of the idea of Europe as having to overcome the nation state. The idea of a pan-European continent in which the nation state would be increasingly irrelevant and the important units would be the EU itself and regions or cities. But far from the east importing western universalism, in a funny way the west was importing separatism so you’ve suddenly got, in addition to separatist movements in the places like Slovakia and the Baltic states, and indeed the Balkans, separatist movements in Catalonia, separatist movements in Northern Italy, separatist movements in Bavaria and you’ve got separatist movements in Scotland. The west imported that feeling, which is not entirely negative, of bits of bigger countries wanting to break away.”
These days it’s an economic union, rather than geography alone that defines where Europe begins and ends. Countries still not in the EU talk about ‘joining the European family’, even as one of its richest members is threatening to leave. It often seems the concept of a united Europe crumbled under the pressures of recession, but Edgar traces it back to post-communist times: “There was certainly a spirit of pan-Europeanism which was cultural – Bernstein conducting Beethoven’s 9th in the shadow of the Wall, the spirit of Beethoven and Michelangelo and Shakespeare and the Italian renaissance and German music and the European cultural tradition which the East might have felt itself cut off from under communism, that was now going to be the spirit of the whole continent. I think what happened very quickly was Europe becoming less about who you were or who we were and more about what you weren’t so you got that sense that the Berlin Wall was being rebuilt one set of countries to the east. There was good Eastern Europe – Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and then there were there these hordes further to the east, Bulgaria, Romania, the Balkans. Europe became a much more exclusive concept.”
Edgar travelled to the Balkans in early 1990; he saw the word ‘east’ – traditionally ascribed slightly savage and unruly connotations – renegotiated by the locals. “Anywhere east of Berlin Wall Europe was a continent that stopped 20 kilometres to the east of wherever one happened to be.” Fittingly, the second play in the trilogy, Pentecost, features a Babylonian group of eastern asylum seekers, from Europe and beyond, who interrupt the post-communist proceedings to invade a church and demand passports and freedoms. Written in 1995, the scenes may as well be a reflection of headlines from a couple of weeks ago.
Pentecost is perhaps the most popular of the trilogy plays, and certainly the most commonly staged across the Atlantic. It was the first Edgar play The Burning Coal Theatre Company from Northern Carolina put on; they have since become the first company to stage all three of Edgar’s Eastern European plays together and their Iron Curtain Trilogy is visiting The Cockpit between the 13th and 30th of November. As they hop over the ocean the productions will lose some of the shock value – Edgar asserts that the presence of legitimate communists and especially the fact The Shape of the Table invites the audiences “into the mind-set of the communists losing power” is still a bigger shock in the country where “communism is an anathema” than it was in Europe 25 years ago. For the playwright the most obvious resonance with the present day comes from the events around The Arab Spring or the many coloured revolutions of the past years; perhaps the relative abstraction of the Eastern Block today can ensure for a vicarious analysis. Then there’s the American role in it all: Pentecost and, to a greater degree The Prisoner’s Dilemma, reflect on the USA’s role of a global police-watchdog, at a time when “9/11 has made American foreign policy a much more present issue in America itself”.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma, whose second act was written after the breakdown of the Oslo peace talks and Kosovo negotiations, also delivers a complete failure of western-style diplomatic efforts. American hubris floats around the play, anticipating the liberal interventionism of the following decade. The political imperatives of the western helping hand is not lost on Edgar: “I think it was very clear that the Americans, particularly those Americans who were sent by the State Department to places like Poland and indeed the former Soviet Union in order to tell people how to reorganise their economies, that they believed that Eastern Europe needed a dose of a kind of turbo capitalism which had been asserted throughout the Thatcher and Reagan years. You could argue that what Eastern Europe needed was not that but something much closer to the welfare state democracies, to mixed economies of the period between ‘45 and the late ‘70s. Even now, 25 years on, there are still functioning welfare states which are very different from America: socialised medicine, welfare both in the working age and old age, public housing, although those are all reduced in scope. [..] I think there was an alternative path for Eastern Europe and I think it was ideologically imposed that they would not follow that path.”
Edgar claims his “crystal ball is very effective on Europe” – a point hard to argue against with the Iron Curtain Trilogy in mind. He predicts a removal of free movement within the EU and a stop on its expansion; he’s not too convinced “we will be living in a welfare democracy much after the next general election”. Finally, he proposes an active fight for the welfare state and a return to social democracy: “It was an extremely successful way of organising society and I think it was deliberately wiped out as an idea by neoliberalism in its various manifestations in the ‘80s and the ‘90s. I think it has to be renewed and it has to be renewed in a way that is not subject to accusations that we are going back to communism.” I have my doubts but Edgar thinks the only political force who could successfully march on with this idea is Labour – though a significantly altered one: “I hope a Labour Party that spends more of its time looking at the opinion polls success of the Greens than it does looking at the polls success of UKIP.”
The Iron Curtain Trilogy is at The Cockpit, from 13th-30th November 2014.